This story is about a young man’s infatuation with an attractive, mature and self-assured professional lady. She is the Personnel Manager in the offices of a big London accountancy firm, where Ben starts work after university. Nowadays she would be the Human Resources Manager but I wanted to stay true to the times.
I think of it as a love story with sex. I hope you enjoy it.
I was twenty-two when I finished at Leeds University where I’d read accountancy. It was as dull as ditch water but I saw it as a means to an end; I’d got my sights set on learning the trade then setting up my own business and retiring at fifty. Forty-five if I could manage it. So I’d worked hard at Uni and I’d got a First-Class honours degree and had come second on my course, out of a hundred and forty-eight.
So when I applied to each of the big six accountancy firms I wasn’t surprised to be invited to interview at all of them over the space of a fortnight. The fourth interview was with Bright and Alcott, who would probably have been my last choice, mainly because I knew less about them than the others. This was the early nineties, when the big six took hundreds of graduates on in their big city offices every autumn. This meant that you didn’t get much time in an interview to impress. And if you bullshitted them and they found out… I’d heard horror stories of interviews where a managing partner had asked a fearful candidate what distinguished them from the other twenty candidates waiting their turn. One acquaintance had said ‘I can juggle,’ thinking that such a response would indicate wit, initiative and originality or some such thing. He’d been unprepared for the interviewer producing three tennis balls from a drawer and handing them solemnly over.
Bright and Alcott’s offices were firmly in the Square Mile, not far from the Bank of England, and covered three huge floors of a towering office block. The interviews were on the uppermost of the three floors, in an executive boardroom. The interviewee faced a panel across a large rosewood table, bare apart from a jug of water and some glasses. It was intimidating. It was supposed to be. Some of the thirty-something associates in the organisation still thought they were Gordon Gecko.
I’d dressed carefully that morning in my best suit, a sober grey with a faint blue pinstripe and I’d spent some time knotting my tie; I’d even polished my shoes. And I thought that I looked the part in the full-length mirror in the bathroom of my north London flat. Very much the smart, keen young graduate ready to take his place on the City’s financial stage. Confident, but not too confident. So as I sat outside with the other candidates I didn’t feel particularly nervous, just a slight deliquescence in my stomach as I contemplated pitting myself against the interview panel. I knew I’d get a job with one of the big six so I wasn’t worried or needy. And I had certain attributes in my favour, not least of which was that I was generally considered to be a very good-looking young man: abundant black curly hair, deep brown eyes, chiselled features and a faint Mediterranean tone to my skin. Of course, such attributes don’t guarantee success, but it’s a fact that male and female alike generally respond better to beauty than to plainness. It isn’t fair, but there it is.
I was called in at eleven forty-six, an hour and a half after I’d arrived for my ten forty-five appointment. Seated across the table was the panel of three interviewers. The panel’s chair, a managing partner, introduced himself as Martin Thomas; he was in his fifties, thin and bony, a ring of grey hair enclosing a shiny, bald pate. Unbelievably he was wearing half-moon spectacles which he looked over at me like some Dickensian clerk.
‘My apologies Mr er,’ he consulted the CV in front of him, ‘Walton. We’re running a little late I’m afraid so we should get straight on. This is Mr Leaning, one of our associates,’ he looked at the thirty-something man sitting on his right, staring at me with faint hostility, ‘and this is Mrs Denholm, our personnel manager.’ She nodded slightly and smiled. Mr Leaning did neither. But I hardly noticed, because that was the first time that I set eyes upon Judith Denholm.
I don’t believe in love at first sight. Love’s too complicated an emotion to be generated in a flash. It’s not just about looks either. Probably it’s less about looks than personality and spirit and vulnerability and a hundred other traits that make up the human psyche. But I believe in desire at first sight, and my first thought was that Mrs Denholm was intensely desirable, even though she was clearly the wrong side of fifty. It would be easy to say at this point that I’ve always had a secret passion for older women, which is not unusual, I believe. But I haven’t. Or at least, up to that point I hadn’t. I didn’t remotely fancy my mother, who was probably five or ten years younger than this lady. Or any of my numerous aunts. Or indeed any of my friends’ mothers. When bonus veren siteler I had dated, it had been with my own age-group. And I’d had plenty of dates; my female university contemporaries had not been backward in approaching me nor in any way reluctant, in many cases, to jump into bed with me.
So what was it about this middle-aged personnel manager that was so fascinating? Well for one thing, she was not, by any means, unattractive. She wasn’t Ava Gardner or anything like that but she’d got nice, regular features that, when taken together, all worked. Her face was slim, with high cheekbones and a slightly square jaw. A straight nose was surmounted by serious grey eyes and dark eyebrows, which matched her collar-length auburn hair. She was, so far as I could tell from the upper half of her body, slim and well-proportioned with a neat bust and long, slender hands, just beginning to show some faint, brown age spots. The years were also apparent in her face: crows’ feet at the corners of her eyes and the beginnings of some vertical lines on her upper lip. But somehow, instead of militating against her attractiveness, it enhanced it. It’s hard to describe, and I’m writing about events that happened thirty years ago. All I can say is that as I looked at Mrs Denholm, then forced myself to look away, I was smitten and I knew that I wanted to know this lady. To be her friend, to learn about her and be close to her. And, naturally, to make love with her.
It wasn’t a great start to the interview because my mind was initially in a whirl. Fortunately, the first few questions were about my CV so I didn’t have to think too much about my answers. Then Mr Leaning started the general questioning and lost no time in putting the boot in.
‘It says on your CV that you were second on your course,’ he was looking at me rather than the sheet of A4 on the desk in front of him. ‘Why weren’t you first? Did you make every possible effort to get the top place?’ His tone was almost combative and I noticed the chairman stir in his seat.
Right, you bastard I thought, suddenly not caring if I failed this interview: ‘I had a bereavement in the family during my finals. My grandmother passed away.’ It was a blatant lie designed to embarrass the inconsiderate twat opposite me but the panel had no way of knowing that. Mr Leaning went slightly red and I guessed I’d made an enemy. He seemed about to say something but Mrs Denholm stepped in, the first time she’d spoken.
‘And you still got second place,’ her voice was calm and clear, middle-class English, no trace of an accent. ‘A remarkable achievement.’ I nodded modestly and she went on: ‘This company has to work with organisations that operate in very diverse fields. Some of those fields, nuclear power for example, give rise to ethical problems for some people. What would your reaction be if you were required to audit a company whose product went against your code of ethics?’ It was a great question and not one that I’d rehearsed.
‘Well,’ I said, possible responses flashing through my mind, ‘I don’t think I’m above averagely sensitive to ethical issues. I mean I’m not uncaring or socially irresponsible, but I don’t carry a torch for anything, apart from the usual fuzzy wish for a more equitable world. I suppose most of us feel that way,’ I said, looking at the three panel members and thinking it unlikely that Mr Leaning in any way desired a more equitable state of affairs. ‘And besides,’ I assume Bright and Alcott has a business code of ethics and I’d be surprised if I couldn’t operate within them. But of course if there were any problems,’ I finished, ‘I’d highlight the issue straightaway with my manager or supervisor and see what could be done to work around it.’
‘Thank you, Ben,’ said Mrs Denholm. Mr Thomas smiled at me. Mr Leaning’s face was expressionless as he asked the next question.
‘It says on your CV that you play rugby in the winter and cricket in the summer. Which position do you play at Rugby?’ It was obvious to me that he was trying to catch me out. I’m not built like the Incredible Hulk, but then not all rugby players are.
‘Number ten,’ I replied, promptly, which happened to be true.
Mr Leaning waited for a few seconds but I didn’t elaborate. He was a spindly fellow and I suspected that the closest he’d been to a game of rugby was watching it on the television. It was quite possible he didn’t know which position wore the number ten shirt and I wasn’t going to help him. The silence was getting awkward when Mrs Denholm spoke again.
‘Apart from sport, do you have any other hobbies?’
I smiled gratefully at her; it was a question that was designed to let me sell myself a bit. ‘Well I’m writing a book,’ I began.
The chairman looked at me. ‘What sort of book? Fiction or non-fiction?’
‘Fiction,’ I replied. ‘It’s a police procedural novel, mostly.’
‘Do you know anything about police procedure?’ asked Mr Leaning, a trace of sarcasm in his voice.
‘My bedava bahis father’s a detective chief inspector with the Metropolitan Police. I get quite a lot of information from him.’ Checkmate and fuck you I thought, with some satisfaction, but the personnel manager hadn’t finished.
‘And have you got the whole plot, the whole book mapped out in your head, or on paper?’ She sounded genuinely interested.
‘Actually no. I’ve got two or three possible endings and I’m not sure which one I’m going to use. I thought that if I didn’t know the ending while I was writing it, the readers wouldn’t be able to guess it either. I know it sounds a bit odd, but it’s something I wanted to try out,’ I explained.
‘I think it’s fascinating,’ said Mrs Denholm, smiling. ‘I’ll look out for your name on the bookshelves. Or are you using a nom de plume?’
The interview ended shortly afterwards and I stood up and left the room, thanking the panel for their time and patience. Mr Thomas nodded to me; Mrs Denholm smiled and Mr Leaning deliberately looked out of the window. A pity, I thought, as I made my way back to my North London flat. It would have been nice to work with Mrs Denholm; more than nice. But there was no doubt in my mind that Mr Leaning would veto my appointment.
So it was with some surprise that I received a job offer through the post the following week; nothing about a second interview, just an offer. This put me in a slightly difficult position. By this time I’d had first interviews with all but one of the big six and had been invited back for a second interview at three of them. Bright and Alcott requested that I accept or reject within seven days, which meant accepting or rejecting without knowing who else wanted me and what their remuneration packages might look like. Having said that, the Bright and Alcott package looked to be about industry standard, and a bird in the hand is undoubtedly worth two in the bush. Also there was Mrs Denholm.
And looking back, I can see that the personnel manager was the decisive factor to me accepting the position, which sounds pretty lame and not the sort of logical and impartial thinking that one expects of an accountant. Which, I suppose, goes to show what an impact she had had on me during that one, half-hour interview.
I started in late September. It was a grey, drizzly day, a forewarning of the approaching autumn, but I was buoyed up as I arrived at the offices. This was the first day of my career. And I’d see Mrs Denholm again, which was important to me; I’d spent the intervening weeks thinking about her, fantasising about her, even. Aware on one level that nothing could possibly come of my youthful infatuation with this middle-aged lady but nevertheless warmed by the flames of imagined eroticism, however unlikely any realisation of my imaginings might be.
I didn’t have to wait long to see her: the twenty-three graduates who were starting that day were guided to the same executive boardroom where the interviews had been held for a welcome and introduction by the personnel manager and her two assistants. My stomach lurched as she walked into the room. I had wondered if she would have the same impact on me after ten weeks, whether I would think that I’d taken the job on a completely false premise. I needn’t have worried, she looked just as elegant, just as attractive and just as self-assured. Furthermore, as she walked past me on three-inch heels to the front of the room, I could see her lower half, which had been concealed during the interview. And it matched the upper half perfectly, almost exactly as I had imagined she would look. Long, shapely legs, slim hips and a confident, feminine posture.
She was wearing a plaid skirt with a white blouse above and black stockings or tights below and she looked scrumptious. I barely heard her opening address and had to make a conscious effort not to openly stare at her. I wondered briefly if the other male newbies were similarly affected. After the opening speech, we were given into the charge of the assistants, both of whom were highly presentable twenty-something females, and Mrs Denholm disappeared into her office down the corridor.
After that first, gut-wrenching vision of Mrs Denholm, I became adept at feigning indifference as I settled into the routine of a working life with Bright and Alcott’s and began to learn my trade. My desk was in a large, open-plan office on the lowest of the three floors that the company rented. Mrs Denholm’s office was on the uppermost floor, in the executive suite where the partners had their offices. I had to go up to one or other of the partners’ offices about once a day on average — legitimately. I took to visiting unofficially two or three times a day so that I could look through the window of her office as I passed on my fictitious errand. Mostly she wasn’t there. Sometimes she was, and I got a tantalising glimpse of her at her desk or standing looking out of the window, a mobile phone pressed deneme bonus to her ear. She was a regular visitor to my floor too, and I tried to take the opportunity to walk past her as she transited the office so that I could say hello. When this happened she invariably smiled and said hello too, though I wondered if she remembered who I was.
In the evenings, in my flat, and at night, thrashing about in bed, unable to sleep, I told myself not to be stupid. She’s old enough to be your mother. Maybe your grandmother at a pinch. Stop mooning over her and look for someone your own age. Well, that wasn’t difficult. One of the personnel assistants had already made it plain that she was interested in me. And she was a pretty girl with a good figure and a bubbly personality. What was my problem? But logic never seemed to satisfy. I took Sally — the personnel assistant — out a few times and we became friends. In truth, one of the reasons I went out with her was to learn more about her boss. That made me feel a bit shitty. And nothing I learned about her boss helped either: she was fifty-five or fifty-six, Sally thought, and was married. Had been for thirty odd years. She had no children and lived in the Home Counties north of London. Further than that I dared not ask for fear of exposing myself. In November I was sent, with some other recent starters, to the Leeds office for a week to broaden our outlooks. After that, we went to Glasgow then Bristol. Altogether, we were away for a month, and I missed Mrs Denholm and looked forward to my return to London. My pre-occupation was beginning to feel unhealthy.
Back in the office the ramp up to Christmas was starting, with decorations being put up and secret Santa’s being organised. There was also the Christmas party. This was traditionally held on the office premises, in fact on my floor; it was generally believed that the company was too stingy to hire a proper venue. But they got caterers in and didn’t stint on the booze or the food so everybody, it appeared, had a good time. My concern was whether the personnel manager would be going. If she weren’t then neither would I; Sally was beginning to get a bit clingy. But she did confirm that her boss always attended when I asked who of the top brass would be there. She also confirmed that wives/husbands/partners etc were not invited.
The party was on the Saturday evening before Christmas and would be the last time that the staff saw one another before the break. It started at seven pm, although it was uncool to turn up before eight-thirty, and went on until twelve. This led to a transport problem as the tube stops at midnight and buses were a bit irregular. This was solved by a complex arrangement of shared taxis and I got in with three others who lived in vaguely the same direction as me.
The evening started well; four or five of us did a pub-crawl around the City and arrived at the office just before nine o’clock. I’d had enough to drink to calm my nerves and give me the confidence to ask Mrs Denholm for a dance, or just talk to her, but not enough to lose control or embarrass myself, or so I thought. As soon as we arrived I looked around and spotted her in a group of senior partners at a table in a corner of the room. She was wearing a black cocktail dress and a garland of tinsel around her neck. I had another drink and danced with Sally, and with some of the girls from my graduate entry. But all the time I was looking around for Mrs Denholm, and all the time she was either dancing with one of the old fogeys from the top floor or surrounded by a merry throng of associates; only once did I see an opportunity to approach her and, as I did so, Mike Leaning, of the difficult interview questions, appeared from the left field and whisked her away. As he did so I fancied that she looked across at me for an instant but it was hard to say; the lighting was dim and the dancefloor was packed.
This made me pretty miserable and Sally, after asking what the matter was, drifted off to enjoy herself in more uplifting company leaving me alone, sipping a bottle of beer and wishing I’d stayed at home. By now it was nearly half-past eleven, time for the disco music to be replaced by some slow numbers before the final lights went up to signal the end of the evening. My taxi was at twelve-fifteen, so I couldn’t leave yet although I did contemplate going and waiting outside. Instead I threaded my way across the dancefloor to join Sally’s group by the bar and that’s when I saw her. Mrs Denholm, sitting at the senior’s table in the corner, alone. Without thinking I veered in her direction, expecting any second that she’d get up and walk away or someone else would claim her. But she was still alone when I got there.
‘Hi Mrs Denholm. Would you care for a dance?’ I asked, diffidently.
She looked up at me, her calm grey eyes making my stomach turn over. ‘Oh, hello Ben. Would you mind awfully if I said no? I’ve been danced off my feet this evening and I can hardly stand. My feet are killing me’
‘Oh, that’s fine,’ I said.
There must have been tragedy in my expression or my tone because she smiled at me. ‘But you could do me an enormous favour and get me a drink. I’m parched and I really can’t face the scrimmage at the bar.’